Like the unbroken snowscapes that set the stage for the entrancing Swedish film Let the Right One In, eternal does not equal unchanging for Eli, the forever pre-pubescent asexual vampire at the center of this harrowing film. Based on the novel of the same name, which in turn borrows its title from a breezy (for him) Morrissey song, Let the Right One In manages to weave a classically formal coming of age story into the iciest, yet most heartfelt, vampire film in some time.
Under cover of night, and accompanied by a man just slightly too old to be the father of a 12-year-old girl, darkly beautiful Eli moves into a beaten down apartment complex filled with single mothers and paranoid Cold War era alcoholics. She bewitches Oskar, the most victimized boy in the whole place. The light that fills the courtyard where they meet is metallic silver, a small suggestion of the eerie within a world that though despirited, pridefully regards itself as civilized. The monochrome grey that defines this universe remains at odds with the passion usually suggested by vampirism, but the hopelessness of the fading light proves a perfect metaphor for the fatigue that even mortal life evokes. Oskar, a bullied weakling whose revenge fantasies are spiraling towards sadism and blood, needs to be befriended, loved. Despite Eli’s protestations that she isn’t who Oskar thinks she is, and can’t be his friend, she keeps appearing in his world. They become each other’s sole support and develop a love as insistent as any of the violence that brutally permeates the film.
Owing more to the 19th Century concept of romantic friendship (which provided cover for many non-traditional sexual relationships by sanctioning the idea of passionate and physical connections between friends) than the hypersexual milieu today’s vampires encompass (all penetration and fluid exchange), Oskar and Eli’s physical and emotional relationship becomes both familial and sexual. The complexity of their romance works to rescue current vampire mythos from the increasingly fuzzy concept of thrall that has overrun the genre. In too much vampire lore, an indeterminate quality of the undead enraptures mortals somewhat against their will. Thrall once allowed the genre to explore power and taboo, but today it has begun to replicate, rather than challenge, the Victorian vision that love and sex are not matters of personal choice, but proof one has been outmaneuvered by a villain.
Let the Right One In resists that easy explanation for why people make such foolish choices with their bodies and hearts. Oskar falls inescapably in love with Eli because Eli gives him real strength and joy. Most of what Oskar unleashes is terrifying but, as writer John Lindgvist shows, love doesn't bring out our best. Oskar, in turn, lures Eli into the world, where she is most dangerous. The first clue of director Thomas Alfredson’s talent for evoking the subtleties of attraction comes when Oskar shows Eli a Rubik’s Cube. The bold primaries of the toy stand out against the children, who are entirely distinct from one another yet eerily similar, like a dark and light cloud about to merge in the sky. As they focus on the literal puzzle in their hands, which is perhaps the most solitary of pastimes, they sit in silence save for the clicks, for one brief moment not alone. It is a purely cinematic moment. I would never have believed a Rubik’s cube could communicate the deepest secrets of the heart.
All of the movie is filmed with equal precision. The film is near colorless, and the leads are both pale unto translucence. Oskar glints like the knife he carries throughout the film, and Eli often vanishes into the concrete wasteland that surrounds them. Even the blood is brown-black rather than red. All lifeforce had been drained from this community long before the vampire appeared.
Other than Oskar, no one recognizes Eli as a vampire, though several adults report seeing a young girl drinking the blood of their neighbors. The adults are all too broken or alienated to consider the implications. The only grown-up who evinces any joy whatsoever is Oskar’s gay father, and he lives in exile from society. The suburb offers such a harrowing existence that no one needs to look outside human experience for monsters. The children see horror every day in the tormenters who jab and whip Oskar whenever he dares to show his face. Blind to vampires, the adults are obsessed with pedophiles and Soviets, and most of all capital punishment, delineating a taxonomy of perceived brutality. The reality of vampires is pretty much a non-event, until their existence gets you hung upside down and bled dry into a dingy gas can.
Each act of violence has a different tone: some are hilarious, others almost impossible to take. At film’s open, Eli, tormented by her need to kill, weeps over her victim in lamentation. The evocation is understated, like most everything else in the film, and within the story religion is noticeably absent. People have lost the will to believe in any supernatural being, even God. But in this universe, mythologies don’t depend on people’s beliefs. When Oskar emerges from his bloody baptismal pool at the climax of the film, it is an astonishing and unexpected rebirth.
Let the Right One In revels in the power of the interplay between the small appearances of Romantic sensibility in an unreflective era. Though able to thrive because modernism makes anonymity acceptable, Eli is a throwback, bringing to mind Carmilla, the 1872 female vampire who provided Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula and set forth the notion of vampires as the creatures who take hold of a heart that is isolated beyond hope.
It’s a classical vampire story in many ways, though it possesses none of the opulence or hedonism that are such a mainstay of vampire mythology. Eli can fly, possesses strength beyond measure, and most poignantly, cannot cross certain thresholds unless invited. That key detail positions Eli as an outcast and gives Oskar his first chance to hurt someone stronger than him. Torn apart by his withholding, Eli begs: “Be me for a little while.” Both seducing him with power and expressing the most vulnerable of wishes, to be loved for who we truly are, her supplication changes Oskar’s life forever.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.